Question: How can a 30-minute CD sound much longer? Answer: Give each song only a verse, play only two chords, forget to boost the vocals in the mix, buy a drum machine from 1987, and stretch each song longer than it was ever meant to stretch.
Windsor for the Derby's Giving up the Ghost is an unusual piece of music. Therefore it is my job (as the music critic) to tell you (the concerned public) whether the music is worth your time. But here's the thing. I read reviews as much -- or more -- than you do. With a nearly infinite amount of music and a less than infinite amount of free time, I rely on critics to tell me which releases aren't a waste. I even glanced at the reviews of WFTD's last album in preparation for reviewing this one. What I found is that critics love them. They wet themselves over any band willing to buck the verse/chorus/verse format. A great difference exists, however, between a band incorporating so many sections into their songs that verses, choruses, bridges, pre-choruses, etc. are indecipherable, as compared to a band that drones on and on with the same bits repeated. WFTD are the second type of band. Verse/chorus/verse structure is scant, but ingenuity often is, too.
When I listened to GUTG for the first time, I projected the previously earned good reviews onto the band and prepared myself for a half hour of quality music. What I heard was initially disappointing. On first listen, the songs sounded fragmentary, the beats sounded flimsy, the lyrics were impossible to make out, and the vocals were poor at best. But I, as a music critic, wanted to praise it all because it sounds like something I should praise. It's the same part of me that wants to praise "Revolution 9" even though I rarely wish to listen to it while plowing through The White Album. Instead of giving in to impulses, I did what any good critic would do. I turned off the lights, put on a good pair of headphones, and listened to it again. Guess what? I felt pretty much the same way. Though the third listen did reveal a little more. Giving up the Ghost is the type of album to play as background music at a party when no one has to pay too much attention to it. Then afterwards, everyone remembers how hip and cool the music sounded. It's often propulsive, sometimes memorable, but only half extraordinary.
After repeated listens, many aspects do gel. The instrumental tracks (the opener and "The Front") are oddly gothic and organic. They blip and boop with the best of Kid A, juxtaposing the beats with acoustic guitars and other natural tones. The dissonant vocals of "Empathy for People Unknown" are acceptable (even catchy) after a few listens, and "Praise" distinguishes itself as the clear standout. "Praise" blasts out of the gate with a jagged guitar tone and a drum machine pounding the Modern English "I Melt with You" rhythm. The song is clearly different from pretty much everything else on the record because it has an actual melody and an actual chorus with actual chord changes. Hesitant keyboard notes give the chorus even more texture and open up the otherwise simple sound. "Giving Up" is the closest thing to a traditional song on the album. It features little more than a finger-picked acoustic guitar, softly brushed drum set, and a persistent tambourine banged somewhere in the distance. The words sound almost as if they were squeezed out of the singer against his will. Then the song transforms into a cathartic release, stretching past the six-minute mark (and nearly to seven) with more prominent guitars, louder drums, and vocals that can very nearly be disseminated. It's all quite good, though a tad longwinded. The final track suffers from the same problem, starting gorgeously and ending after its welcome has run out.
Other aspects of this CD remain baffling no matter how many times they're heard. Backing the vocals on "Empathy" is a seemingly broken organ capable of producing only two chords. The rudimentary drums and oddly delivered vocals don't help the sound. These components are hip for the sake of hip. It might be the catchiest song on the record, but I'm not even sure if I like it. "Shadows" drones and drones, reminding me of Tenacious D's "One Note Song", complete with a bending note flourish every few measures. The vocals are buried so deeply in the mix that the lyrics are not allowed to contribute anything more. It's with this song and others that I long for a traditional verse/chorus/verse structure to provide a little variety. Instead I get "The Light is On", which let's me know that I'm not quite ready to hear another two-chord song. But don't worry, oh concerned listener, because the next track, "Gathering", dips right back into the glory that is a song with only two chords. Can it be true? Oh wonderfully bland day! None of these songs is bad, mind you, simply repetitive.
I would love to quote some lyrics, but the recording doesn't give me enough confidence to decipher them correctly. "Every Word You Ever Said" is the only song with words front and center, and even that song runs two and a half minutes longer than it should. So what am I left with? Giving up the Ghost is a 30-minute album that seems much longer and could easily be trimmed to the mid-20s. Even so, I look forward to reading other reviews. Critics will happily explain why my analysis is wrong and why WFTD are geniuses. I'll learn that I haven't been listening to a good band capable of some greatness and frequent mediocrity. I'll learn that my ears simply aren't mature enough to understand the sophisticated music. Thank God for music critics.